Interview with Matthew Doran, ABC Afternoon Briefing

Matthew Doran
Gas and energy prices; industrial relations reform and wages growth

MATTHEW DORAN, HOST: Well it's time now for our political panel and joining me in the studio the Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing Labor Senator Tim Ayres, and from Adelaide Liberal MP James Stevens joins us. Welcome to both of you.  

Tim Ayres, I'll start with you on this issue of gas and the energy crisis. How much pressure is the Government under to try to come up with some sort of plan at the very least, even if it isn't implemented, before Parliament returns next week?  

TIM AYRES, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TRADE AND ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR MANUFACTURING: I don't think it's got anything to do with Parliament next week. I think, you know, we have been engaged with this issue since the very first day that we took government.  We've inherited a policy mess in energy and in gas. The Government has delivered on the supply front, but as Jim's indicated there and Chris Bowen has indicated more broadly, there are a series of options on the table that the Government is considering when it comes to price.  

There have been some months now where it's been very clear to the gas producers. We've dealt with the issue of supply but Australian households, and in particular my portfolio area Australian industry, is relying on the gas industry for a sensible approach to pricing. The gas producers have an opportunity to deal with the question of price themselves.  

Absent that, you know, the Government is considering the position and all options are on the table and we'll deal with this in a careful and methodical way. There won't be a timetable approach to this. What we're interested in here is getting the right policy outcome.  

DORAN: You mentioned there manufacturing, that is of course your portfolio responsibility. The Industry Minister Ed Husic, he hasn't exactly held back when he's been talking about the behaviour of some of the gas companies, in particular accusing them of effectively profiteering from the current crisis that the nation and the world is finding itself in with regards to energy. Would you share that sort of criticism?  

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TRADE AND MANUFACTURING: Yeah, he's dead right. There is a policy disaster that we have inherited from the previous Government colliding with the global situation, the war in Ukraine, having a very significant upwards effect on gas prices.  

The gas industry has within its remit to not profiteer from this position but deliver security and certainty for Australian manufacturing businesses. It matters for households, but it matters for manufacturers, particularly on the east coast who are dependent on gas for not just their energy requirements but as a feed stock for their manufacturing processes, and a number of those are on the edge. And it's the gas industry's responsibility to play for the national team here. That's what Australians expect. If the gas industry wants a social licence they are going to need to contribute.  

Absent the gas industry taking the responsibility for resolving these issues themselves, well the Government's going to have to consider a series of policy options that are on the table, and I think the Treasurer spelt that out pretty carefully today.  

DORAN: James Stevens, would you agree with some of the criticism that's been lobbed at energy companies, particularly gas companies, that they have been profiteering, that they're not on - to quote what the good senator has just said here, not on Team Australia?  

JAMES STEVENS, MEMBER FOR STURT: Well look, I certainly agree they're operating within an environment that is not in the best interests of our nation at the moment, because indeed it is ludicrous to have a situation where a huge gas exporter like Australia has not only struggled with prices but in some cases we're struggling with domestic supply.  

We've had issues in the last few months where there were projections indicating that we might run out of gas in Australia. That's obviously ridiculous. But it's equally extremely concerning that projections in the budget last week about electricity prices and gas prices going up as dramatically as the Government is modelling, and it's really time for the Government to stop talking about this and actually do something about it.  

They've had a long, long time to put forward some concrete solutions to these challenges. They came out in last week's budget; they've scared the households and businesses of this nation by saying we're going to get these dramatic increases in these prices, and we need them to talk about what they're going to do to help people deal with those enormous challenges. Stop just talking about the problem, start talking about a solution.  

DORAN: So do you think considering how serious the situation has become that market intervention is inevitable?  

STEVENS: In some way yes, I think it's inevitable. I mean it's a complicated area of course because a lot of these major projects have been financed under long-term contracts for export overseas and the companies, and indeed Australia's reputation is at stake here as well.

So we've got to be wary of the consequences of certain pathways to be taken. But I don't think the people of this country, and I certainly hold the view as well, that it would not accept that being such an enormous producer of gas is leaving us in a position where we're dealing with these dramatic price increases at the same time as seeing so much gas go directly into foreign markets.  

DORAN: Let's turn to another topic and, Tim Ayres, I want to ask you about the industrial relations reform. You are a member of the red rooms, you are often able to watch on as these sort of complex negotiations take place. 

We were speaking to your colleague Tony Burke earlier and he said that it's not his position to want to split up part of these bills into the more palatable and the less palatable, if we want to use that sort of phrasing. Isn't this exactly the sort of behaviour that Labor spent the last nine years in opposition criticising the Coalition for? Bundling together a whole bunch of measures and then trying to ram it through the Senate?  

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TRADE AND MANUFACTURING: There's a very straightforward set of propositions here in the legislation that go to collective bargaining, that go to flexibility, particularly for women at work. We've got to get wages moving in this country. This is an urgent set of reforms.  

Now I respect that the Senate crossbench and that independent members of parliament want to do their job and scrutinise legislation effectively. I understand that support that the Government will engage with them 24 hours a day seven days a week. There is no shortage of capacity on the Government's side to engage on the detail. But what we can't do is hold wages back.  

We've had a decade of low wage growth being a design feature of the previous government's approach to the economy. We've had historically low - the longest period of low wage growth, and in some areas, wages going backwards, in our history, and we're going to have to take steps to deal with that. And it does mean strengthening the collective bargaining system. It does mean giving access to meaningful pay rises for Australian workers and it does mean improving, you know, some of these reforms will go a long way to improving cooperation and lifting productivity in the economy.  

They are long overdue reforms. They deal with aspects of the legislation that aren't working for workers or for business, and the timetable that the Government set here is absolutely in line with our economic priorities. We have to get wages moving again.  

We can't kick that issue into the never-never and we're going to have to deal with these issues this year, in my view, and I am encouraged by the approach that the crossbenchers have taken, you know. They've got to make the case to be engaged thoroughly by the Government and they will be engaged and treated respectfully in the process.  

DORAN: It's not exactly kicking it into the never-never, is it? David Pocock, Jacqui Lambie, they're saying that they are quite happy to back some of those measures now because they see the merit in them, they understand them. And those other more contentious elements, such as multi-employer bargaining, should wait until the New Year when they're dealt with as a matter of priority. That's just a couple of months.  

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TRADE AND MANUFACTURING: Yeah, multi-employer bargaining's pretty important to fixing the bargaining system.  We have streams of multi-employer bargaining sitting in the Act now. They just don't work. They just don't work.  

You look around the world at our OECD counterparts. Eighteen out of 26 OECD countries have some form of multi-employer bargaining in their systems. Why do they have it? They have it because it puts upward pressure on wages. It's good for productivity. It means, the international evidence shows that it means higher employment and lower unemployment and it's a centrepiece of those government's approach to productivity and cooperation in the economy.  

Now which bit of that as Australians don't we want? This is a sensible, moderate reform that strengthens the collective bargaining system and means that workers and businesses will be able to sensibly engage on the issues that lift wages and lift productivity. It's long overdue. It's a very straightforward reform and we ought to get on with it.  

DORAN: James Stevens, do you think that the Government is trying to rush this one through without a whole lot of scrutiny?  

STEVENS: Well they absolutely are and equally let's just not forget that the workplace system we operate under, the Fair Work Act, was introduced by the Labor Party under the Rudd-Gillard era. So if they're now saying that it is responsible for 10 years of below acceptable wages growth then the blame for that rests at the feet of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.  

I equally don't recall the Labor Party talking about any of these issues in the recent Federal election campaign. So if this was so fundamental and critical and vitally important, why in the world were none of these issues properly canvassed before the campaign and before the Australian people in the May election?  

And finally, the Government, six months in, have introduced a bill just last week and they're saying to the Parliament, including the Senate crossbench, that they only have a month to look at, decide whether they support these very complex detail within this legislation, and it's absolutely ridiculous and outrageous.  

I hope that the Senate crossbench hold their nerve on this. Regrettably in my chamber, the House of Representatives, we don't have the numbers. The Labor Party will ram this through without people fully understanding the consequences of it, but we need the Senate and the crossbench in particular to stand up to this kind of bullying and make sure that they won't acquiesce to these threats, and also I hope don't end up ultimately supporting some of these measures as well, which are quite frightening proposals that are going to cause some very serious economic damage at a time when we need it the least.  

DORAN: Just briefly, James Stevens, before we lose the pair of you, do you concede though that given how this situation with wage growth has played out over the last 10 years, consistent wage forecasts or wage growth forecasts not being met, that now is the time for some maybe out-of-the-box or more radical thinking about how to reform our workplace systems?  

STEVENS: Well, we tried to put some reforms through two years ago, Matthew, you might recall in 2020 and the Labor Party had zero interest in talking about reform, some of which, like looking at the boot test, they're now folding into these reforms they've announced last week. So there's crocodile tears here from Labor on this topic and I certainly don't want to make changes that the business community and other important stakeholders haven't had a proper and fair opportunity to fully understand the impact on them. I mean this is important. 

I want to get wages growing as much as anyone. We want all Australians to get a proper fair dividend from their hard work and we want to see real wages increasing and standards of living increasing commensurately. That's why this is extremely important. I really think this just smacks of the Labor Party repaying the union movement for the enormous financial contributions they were given during the recent election campaign. And hats off to the union movement, they have really pulled off a massive return on investment in exchange for the donations they gave to Labor in the recent election campaign.  

ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TRADE AND MANUFACTURING: Honestly, if the Liberals were interested in wage growth and productivity, they had a decade to deal with it. No reform during their period that assisted lifting wages. In fact, the Government said that low wage growth was a deliberate design feature of their approach to the economy.  

Now we've got a straightforward set of reforms here. You know, it's politics as usual from the Liberals, we need more evidence and less ideology in the debate about industrial relations in this country. The kind of assertions that they are making, the sky is going to fall in if a sensible set of reforms that are a mainstay of the economic approach of most of our overseas counterparts with credible economic approaches to collective bargaining. You know, I mean you've got to take it with a grain of salt really.  

If they cared about wage growth, they would have done something about it. We're doing something about it. It will damage the economy if we can't move forward and get wages moving in the economy again, and we're determined to put our shoulder behind the wheel. Just like we have done with the minimum wage setting system, supporting the application to lift the wages of low paid workers. We're determined to put our shoulder behind the wheel and support sensible moderate reform that puts upward pressure on wages and the rest of the economy.  

DORAN: Well, gentlemen, we do have to leave it there. We could discuss this all afternoon.  


DORAN: Tim Ayres, James Stevens, thanks for joining us today.